Alaska Militia leader and 2 other members plead not guilty

By Mary Pemberton

Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- The head of a militia group accused of conspiring to buy illegal firearms to have on hand for overthrowing the government failed Monday to convince a federal judge to dismiss the case against him and two members of the Alaska Peacekeeper Militia.

Francis Schaeffer Cox appealed directly to the judge during Monday's arraignment in U.S. District Court in Anchorage, despite the judge's advice to have his lawyer do the talking for him.

"I am a critic, not a criminal," Cox told Judge Robert Bryan.

Cox, who lives in Fairbanks, and fellow militia members Coleman Barney of North Pole and Lonnie Vernon of Salcha, pleaded not guilty Monday to conspiring between Dec. 28, 2009, and March 10, 2011, to possess illegal firearms.

The indictment focuses mainly on Cox who is charged with a variety of federal weapons offenses including possessing a machine gun and making a silencer. Federal prosecutors say the illegal weapons were to be used if the militia had to take up arms against the government or thwart any efforts by law enforcement to take Cox into custody.

Cox's lawyer, Nelson Traverso, told Bryan that his client was trading in ideas, not firearms, when the Fairbanks-based militia group gathered for their meetings.

"Mr. Cox drew the attention of the federal government for very provocative ... challenging speech that stirred debate," Traverso said.

Cox advised militia members to let the government self-destruct. When government informants encouraged Cox to "go to war," Traverso said he resisted.

"Now your honor, does that sound like a domestic terrorist?" Traverso asked.

In court Monday, Cox acknowledged that his words may have provoked the government. But, he told the judge, "that is legal in America. Not only did I not do anything wrong. I did everything right."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Skrocki told the judge that Cox resisted not because he was against the idea but felt the group wasn't strong enough yet.

The judge refused to dismiss the case, explaining that free speech is protected but speech is not protected from being investigated.

He warned lawyers not to make the case about domestic terrorism.

"The issues are illegal possession of prohibited weapons," the judge said.

Two other members of the group, Lonnie Vernon and his wife, Karen, also appeared in court Monday for a status hearing.

The Vernons are accused in a separate case of threatening to kill U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline, members of his family and Internal Revenue employees over his rulings in a 2009 tax case. The Salcha couple allegedly owed $118,000 to the IRS for failing to pay taxes.

According to prosecutors, the couple purchased a gun with a silencer and offered to trade Karen Vernon's jewelry for grenades. They eventually obtained three hand grenades, not realizing they were inert, the indictment says.

The five militia members were arrested in March. Trials are expected to take place next year.

State charges of plotting to kill Alaska State Troopers and court officials were dropped after a judge determined that audio and video recordings were obtained without a search warrant. However, federal charges remain in the case stemming from a six-month FBI investigation.

Cox and the others were accused in the state case of coming up with the so-called "241" plan, which was to be used if any militia members were arrested. The group planned to kidnap two law enforcement officials for every militia member taken into custody, according to court documents.

Prosecutors said the group had stockpiled weapons and had made "Wanted Dead or Alive" posters depicting those they wanted to kill.

Published: Wed, Nov 30, 2011